Riding the Rails – The National Railroad Museum

So what’s the first thing that springs to your mind when I say, “Green Bay?”

If you’re a football fan, you probably thought, ‘Lambau Field;’ if you aren’t a fan but have one in your life, then you probably thought about the Green Bay Packers – whether you love them or hate them, they’re a well-known name during the playing season!

But while the folks of Green Bay are definitely proud of their team, this city of deceptive size, nestled on the point of a sub-basin of Lake Michigan, has a small-town atmosphere and a lot to attract the interest of any visitor.

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What’s the story?

Well, back in the 1630s, Samuel de Champlain – an explorer and the founder/governor of New France in Quebec, heard about a race that called themselves the “People of the Sea.”  Now, it turned out that the people he was hearing about were the Winnebago, a tribe that was native to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and parts of Iowa and Illinois, but de Champlain didn’t know that at the time.  He’d heard they traded with a people farther west who rode in boats made of wood instead of bark, and because of the way their shaved heads, lack of beards, and costumes were described he thought they resembled the Tartars or the Chinese.  Like many explorers, he wanted to find a shorter route to China by going west instead of east; envisioning riches of fertile soil and untouched forests teeming with fur-bearing animals, he hired Jean Nicolet de Belleborne to find these people and the treasures he wanted to claim.

Upshot is, de Belleborne arrived at Red Banks in late summer or early fall of 1634, eventually finding his way to the people who lived near the mouth of the Fox River.  He’s the one who named the body of water for its greenish tinge; La Baie Verte, or ‘the Green Bay.’

The history of virtually any area of this country is convoluted, and the settlement and development of Green Bay is no exception – it’s been controlled by the French, the British, and the Americans; it’s been settled by people from Canada, France, England, Holland, Belguim, Ireland, Germany, Scandanavia.  Its existence was cemented when Daniel Whitney constructed docks where the East River runs into the Fox, attracting all kinds of water traffic to this link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

Now, if you’ve ever looked into the history of the railways and tried to track it around a specific place, then you know  that the history of these iron giants  and their tracks is convoluted, ever-changing, and affected by a number of outside forces – World Wars, the availability and affordability of cars, the Great Depression.

Works in progress

Works in progress

In 1956, folks in the Green Bay area got together, wanting to create a national museum of railroad history, dedicated to preserving and interpreting the stories of the railways and their roles in the development of the United States.  They were recognized by Congress in a resolution two years later.  And what started as one steam locomotive in a city park has grown into a magnificent place to play and learn and gaze in awe at the engines that helped to shape the country we live in today.

Cormier Road takes you right to the entrance, though Pilgrim Way will get you there too.  And to pull into the parking lot, you have to cross a set of train tracks.  And they’re not for adjusting exhibits, though I’m sure they’re used for that too.  Oh, no – they’re for taking an actual train ride!!  The cars are pulled by a diesel engine, which is maybe a little disappointing if you’re into steam, but impressive nonetheless.

 

On the rails, you travel the circumference of the property, seeing the museum buildings from all angles, crossing over a tributary to the Fox River (keep your eyes open – you might see herons, egrets, or turtles!) and moving through a forest trail you would swear isn’t wide enough to accommodate you.  All the while, the conductor is introducing you to the museum and its history, the story of the diesel that’s towing you along, hobo culture and signs – you’ll even stop beside an empty sidecar marked up with sigils.

The inside of the museum of course has the obligatory gift shop – which is well worth checking out, since they have some books and DVDs on railway history as well as the specific histories of two of their static prizes, the Dwight D. Eisenhower and Union Pacific #4017 Big Boy.

Yes, Dwight D. is the train the President rode in through England during World War II, and the two rail cars behind her have been restored to the same condition they were in when they were the mobile command center.

And the 4017 is what’s called an articulated engine; the front is actually free-swinging to right and left so that when the train travels around turns, the boiler (which can’t bend – cast iron boilers and fireboxes have no flexibility) stays straight while the wheels follow the track, which curves more sharply than the engine can otherwise accommodate.  See, Union Pacific designed it to have greater speed and more power by enlarging the firebox and lengthening the boiler, then made it articulate so that they wouldn’t have to tear up miles of track in order to make gentler curves that the longer engine could follow.

And once you’ve seen the model of the Aerotrain inside and heard the conductor on your train ride talk about this quirk of the railways – designed for speed and built with bus bodies – you have to step out to the McCormick Train Pavilion and stand beside this streamlined silver engine.

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National Railroad Museum

Where:

2285 S Broadway, Green Bay, WI 54304

When:

From April  to December:  Mon – Sat, 9am to 5pm; Sun – 11am to 5pm (New Year’s Eve they’re open from 9am to 2 pm)
From January to March:  Tue – Sat, 9am to 5pm; Sun – 11am to 5pm

They’re closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Day

Cost:

There are two categories of admission; museum only, and museum plus train ride (and seriously, who wouldn’t want to take the train ride, but they only actually run it from the first of May to the 30th of September every day, and weekends only from October 1st to October 31st).

Museum Only

Museum and Train Ride

Members

Free

Free

Adult

$10.00

$12.00

Senior

$9.00

$11.00

Child (age 3-12)

$7.50

$9.50

Child (under 3)

Free

Free

Contact Information:

Phone, 920-437-7623; email, staff@nationalrrmuseum.org

Website:

www.nationalrrmuseum.org  They also have a Facebook page!

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